Roosevelt, Theodore (1858–1919)

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The son of a New York City merchant and philanthropist and a descendant of the original Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, Theodore Roosevelt was graduated magna cum laude from Harvard College in 1879. He studied law for one year at Columbia University, but never completed law school or practiced law. When he was twenty-three years old he published his first book (the influential Naval War of 1812) and was elected to the New York state legislature on the Republican ticket. In his second term, having successfully campaigned for a legislative investigation of statewide corruption, he was chosen minority leader of the state Assembly, and from that position he engineered passage of the state civil service reform measures proposed by Democratic Governor grover cleveland.

In 1886, after two years of ranching in the Dakota badlands, Roosevelt returned to New York City and attempted to resume his political career, but he was defeated in his race for mayor. He held no political office until 1889, when President benjamin harrison appointed him to the United States Civil Service Commission, a post in which he was retained when Cleveland returned to the presidency. In 1895, Roosevelt became president of the New York City Police Commission; for more than two years he did public battle with police corruption and demon rum.

When william mckinley was elected President, Roosevelt went back to Washington as the vigorous assistant secretary of the Navy. At the beginning of the Spanish American War in 1898, Roosevelt resigned his office in the Navy Department and raised a regiment of volunteer cavalry, which he subsequently led in combat in Cuba. Riding the crest of fame from his wartime exploits, Roosevelt was elected governor of New York in 1898 and vice-president of the United States in 1900.

Roosevelt succeeded to the presidency when McKinley was assassinated in September 1901. He immediately pledged that his aim was "to continue, absolutely unbroken, the policy of President McKinley." But neither his love of fame nor his reformist impulses would permit him to redeem that pledge. Having reached the highest office in the land at a younger age than anyone before or since, he displayed a degree of vigor and impatience far greater than his predecessors had done. He also had a more expansive view of the powers and duties of the President than any of his predecessors since abraham lincoln. Not only did he think of the presidency as a "bully pulpit" from which one might lead, rather than follow, public opinion, but he also conceived of the office as having a roving commission to do anything the public weal might require so long as the Constitution did not by its terms prohibit the proposed course of action.

In foreign affairs, Roosevelt acted with particular energy. On his own initiative he imposed a form of government in the Philippines (a commission headed by william howard taft) that Congress subsequently confirmed in the Philippine Organic Act (1902). He arranged by treaty for America to take over the British interest in construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Panama and subsequently fomented a revolt of Panamanians against the government of Colombia so that a favorable panama canal treaty could be negotiated (1903) and work on the canal begun. When the Latin American countries of Venezuela and Santo Domingo (now the Dominican Republic) defaulted on loans from European banks, Roosevelt put those countries under American occupation and receivership rather than risk military intervention by Europeans in the Western Hemisphere. This policy he called his "corollary" to the monroe doctrine. When an American citizen was kidnapped in 1904 by a band of Moroccan brigands, Roosevelt ordered a force of sailors and marines to invade a neutral and sovereign state to secure the citizen's release. Roosevelt also personally mediated the settlement of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905 (thereby earning the Nobel Peace Prize), and his administration was instrumental in achieving agreements to guarantee the independence of Morocco (1906) and to settle disputes among the Central American republics (1907). When Congress refused to appropriate funds so that the United States fleet could make a round-the-world show-the-flag cruise, Roosevelt used his power as commander-in-chief to order the ships to go as far as they could, confident that Congress would appropriate the funds to bring them home.

In domestic policy, Roosevelt's administration was both nationalist and interventionist. Roosevelt resumed prosecutions under the sherman antitrust act (albeit not so vigorously as his later critics would have liked) and proposed what became the hepburn act (1906), giving the Interstate Commerce Commission authority to set railroad rates nationwide. He put the federal government into the business of conserving America's wild places and natural resources, creating the Inland Waterways Commission (1907) and the National Conservation Commission (1908). Roosevelt was generally critical of the constitutional jurisprudence of his day, and especially of the Supreme Court's protection of substantive due process of law in cases relating to economic regulation. He emphatically rejected the contention that criticism of the judiciary weakens respect for law and undermines the independence of the judiciary. In his sixth state-of-the-Union message, he said: "The judge has a power over which no review can be exercised; he himself sits in review upon the acts of both the executive and legislative branches of the government; save in the most extraordinary cases he is amenable only at the bar of public opinion; and it is unwise to maintain that public opinion in reference to a man with such power shall neither be exprest nor led." Influenced by some of the more radical strains of progressive constitutional thought, he favored a right of popular "recall" of state judicial decisions, that is, of allowing decisions to be overturned by a vote of the people. His first appointee to the Supreme Court, oliver wendell holmes of Massachusetts, initially so disappointed Roosevelt that the President remarked that he could "carve a judge with more backbone from a banana." Roosevelt's two other appointees, william r. day and william moody, both generally provided judicial support for state and federal regulation of business enterprise.

In 1908, Roosevelt did not seek reelection, but hand-picked as his successor William Howard Taft. He then retired from politics to a life of writing and adventuring. But Roosevelt disapproved of the conservative tone assumed by the Taft administration and attempted to wrest the 1912 Republican nomination for himself. When Taft was renominated, Roosevelt formed his own party, the Progressive party, and ran for President anyway. Roosevelt's candidacy split the Republican vote and permitted the election of woodrow wilson.

Roosevelt was later reconciled to the Republican party and in 1916 campaigned for the Republican presidential candidate, charles evans hughes. When the United States entered world war i, Roosevelt asked President Wilson to authorize him to raise and command a volunteer division to serve in the expeditionary force; Wilson refused. After the war, Roosevelt opposed Wilson's plan for a League of Nations, preferring that the postwar world be dominated by an Anglo-American alliance. When he died, in 1919, Roosevelt was beginning to plan for yet another attempt at reelection to the presidency.

Dennis J. Mahoney


Blum, John Morton 1954 The Republican Roosevelt. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.

Morris, Edmund 1979 The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt. New York: Coward, McCann & Geohegan.

Mowry, George E. 1958 The Era of Theodore Roosevelt: 1900–1912. New York: Harper & Brothers.

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